Our actions — even with the best of intentions — can have unintended consequences. It is these consequences or barriers to adoption that we ought to consider while designing for good.

While watching a clip from Portlandia, this point was illustrated. In it a dolphin swims past plastic bags at the bottom of the ocean. The dolphin announces a landlubber ban on plastic bags. The sea creatures, instead of rejoicing, are crushed. They can no longer make their plastic bag sea castles. While this example is somewhat silly, but it is reflective of much larger and more serious issues. Across the US, retailers are charging customers for disposable bags and some cities are taking steps to ban them all together. But the reduction in supply of bags is hurting recyclers that reply on post-consumer content.



Another unintended consequence involves the venerable solar panel. Although considered good for the environment, solar panels are not so good for firefighters. The panels can get in the way of firefighters attempting to ‘vent’ a burning building when cutting a hole in the roof. They run the risk of electric shock as well. In each of these cases, well-meaning decisions are being made that have far-reaching consequences.

Distance between the designer and designee can span time, space, or even ‘worlds’. While watching an advanced screening of ‘Extreme by Design’, I was touched by the work people are doing to help improve the lives of those they hardly know. The would-be designers traveled around the globe to meet and better understand people in need. This documentary chronicles just one of many efforts to develop low-cost solutions using locally available materials to solve the most pressing issues, such as nebulizers to make medicine and autoclaves to sterilize medical equipment. One group at MIT, the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, is dedicated to solving these problems.

I was struck, however, by their approach. The process first involves the director identifying a topic to address, followed by partnering with a company to help scale the solution. Perhaps the details of the process are obscured by the brevity of the article, but at what point is the affected population understood? When are the nuances of the issue and potential solutions explored? When are the latent needs uncovered and when are the far-reaching consequences considered? These questions are paramount.

In another example  from the Pratt Institute, two designers have created what appears to be a leap forward in affordable footwear. The shoes are cheap to create, but more importantly, they are foldable allowing them to be shipped easily. Granted, this idea has the potential to save lives, but will people accept it? Again, perhaps the short article does not do justice to the entire process, but there are a myriad of questions that I believe should be at the forefront. Will the shoes provide enough traction in the intended environment? Will people know they need footwear to avoid infection? Will people like the style? From the critical to the seemingly superficial, answers to these and other questions should drive the shoe’s development.

I am not alone in my concerns. In the wake of disasters, we often challenge designers and engineers alike to propose solutions for the next tragedy. One case in point was Hurricane Sandy, which devastated many costal cites and towns in the northeastern US. From houses to lifeguard stands to shared spaces, people proposed solutions as part of award competitions. While often beautiful, these designs run the risk of leaving us with a mistaken sense of security. According to John Carey of Public Interest Design:

One thing that I don’t believe is going to help a great deal is the proliferation of design competitions and contests that seem to pop up after these kinds of disasters and which frankly don’t address or engage with the real needs on the ground or the kind of readiness that we need to have. We need much more practical solutions that are both preemptive and responsive when something does goes wrong.

Carey challenges us to dig deeper to think more carefully about what the challenges are. Beautiful designs may gain attention and sometimes help win awards, but we need to think through the utilitarian needs of people and places.

In my inaugural post, I considered design globalism versus design localism. I applauded efforts to reach out to faraway communities and design solutions to meet their needs. But I, along with others, cautioned against thinking too imperialistically. I urged us to continue acting globally while also thinking globally. I believe that we need to truly understand not only the needs of people but also the context in which we design our solutions.

This process involves uncovering what I call ‘latent adoption barriers’, these unexpected forces that might cause a seemingly perfect solution to utterly fail. But how can we discover these barriers? One way is to live with the people you design for. This approach is consequential to the Teach for America mission. In 2003, I moved across the country to live in a new city to learn about a new culture and understand the needs of students who were very different from my classmates growing up.

Consider, also, the story of News Deeply founder Lara Setrakian. Rather than simply reporting on the middle east, she moved there.

That empathy led to what she calls “a sense of social justice,” so she graduated from Harvard with a degree in government… Setrakian [took] a job at ABC News, where she cut her teeth on the Duke University lacrosse team scandal before being offered a job covering Iran. “The original assignment was to go live in Tehran,” Setrakian says… It was there she first witnessed the power of niche journalism by blogging regularly about everything from anorexia in Arabia to the inner battles of the PLO.”

But not all of us can uproot our lives for every project. Another possibility is to engage people whose job it is to know the local population. In a new study from MIT, researchers suggest designers will have more success if they target microentrepreneurs in the local communities. These microentrepreneurs are more likely to have their finger on the pulse of the needs of the community. I am not suggesting to avoid locals and end-users. Rather, the wisdom gained from microentrepreneurs might help us converge on solutions that avoid latent adoption barriers.



Photo credit: United Nations Photo


(This article first appeared in 2013; updated in 2018.)